“The Acid Tests were breaking out into an area in which it had no specific goals. It was just discovering what was out there and continue to move away from the norm. When we got to the end of it, we got to a sense of what the acid test meant to a lot of people. It was a test, and there was people who passed and people who didn’t pass.”
–Ken Kesey, And Miles To Go Before I Sleep (1993)
“None of them began with a philosophical framework or even a main idea. They all began with an overwhelming new experience … the sense of being a vessel of the divine, of the All-one.”
–Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968)
On New Year’s Eve, Baltimore-based quartet Pigeons Playing Ping Pong will pay homage to the intrepid, Prankster spirit of the lysergic ’60s with a 360-degree psychedelic musical experience at Asheville, NC’s ExploreAsheville.com Arena that promises to test the wonder and imagination of The Flock: “The Electric Kool-Aid Asheville Test.”
The band—comprised of lead guitarist Jeremy Schon, rhythm guitarist and frontman Greg Ormont, bassist Ben Carrey, and drummer Alex Petropulos—has had quite the musical trip together since their establishment in 2008. Rising to fame throughout the years with headlining sets at some of the world’s most notable music festivals, selling out the majority of their shows around the country, amassing a zealously loyal and ever-growing Flock of fans—the band has a lot to be thankful for as they head into 2020.
Pigeons Playing Ping Pong just played their biggest headlining show to date on their home turf The Anthem in Washington, D.C., and will surpass that mark with their modern-day Acid Test in Asheville. As we all look forward to New Year’s Eve and think back on the last decade, Live For Live Music‘s Mikala Lugen chatted with Greg Ormont about the show at The Anthem, his fortuitous trip to the PRS workshop, and what exactly fans can expect from “The Electric Kool-Aid Asheville Test.” [Spoiler Alert: Expect to be amazed!]
The Electric Kool-Aid Asheville Test
[Video: Pigeons Playing Ping Pong]
Live For Live Music: How was your D.C. run?
Greg Ormont: Oh, man. D.C. was absolutely insane. It ended up being our biggest show ever, and it definitely felt that way because the venue is like a palace. It just feels like you’re playing into the heavens. So when I walked in and the room was empty during soundcheck, my mouth was literally agape. I just couldn’t believe the magnitude of it and that we had the honor of filling it and it looked incredible out in the crowd once the show got started and we had the time of our lives. We had Casey [Russell] from the Magic Beans join us on a number of songs and I think one of the highlights of the night [was] when we first invited the Here Come the Mummies horns out for “King Kong”, kinda reenacting the music video we did with them and previewing our upcoming album, Presto. They’re all so talented, and really nice Mummies.
Live For Live Music: It looked like an incredible show! I saw you guys were chilling with Paul Reed Smith last weekend, as well, and you received a Silver Sky John Mayer PRS guitar? That’s so badass.
Ormont: Yeah, Jeremy turned me onto PRS years ago and I’ve never looked back. I have a Custom 24 that plays great. And when we went to PRS to hang with their team to tour the factory again and get our guitars fixed up, we told them that on our upcoming album, Presto, we used PRS guitars for virtually everything, although there was one track where we wanted to have a Strat sound and we don’t have a PRS Stratocaster or anything like it so we had to use another brand for one track. After hearing this, they made sure I walked out with their new Silver Sky model that they just put out with John Mayer, which has that sweet Strat sound. So now, on our next album, I’ll be fully equipped with any sound I need from PRS.
Live For Live Music: That’s amazing.
Ormont: It really was. We were stunned to see that Paul Reed Smith himself was there and working his ass off. He popped in and ended up hanging for probably over an hour, just schooling us on the world of guitars and amplifiers and speakers. Paul is just a really smart, eccentric dude, and he’s a real perfectionist. So when his employees worked on Jeremy and I’s guitars, Paul himself inspected the guitar and even noticed something on Jeremy’s guitar and personally gave Jeremy’s guitar some TLC and did the same with mine, which I consider like having Steve Jobs fix your laptop for you. They’re also from Maryland, so it’s like a match made in heaven to be able to honestly and genuinely represent them on the road because we’re so proud of their product and they happen to be Maryland homeboys and homegirls.
Live For Live Music: So The Anthem show was the band’s biggest headlining show to date. But now, for New Year’s Eve, you guys are about to beat that—literally less than a month after. How do you feel about that?
Ormont: You know, we’re taken aback by the support we’ve gotten over the years and as the shows grow, it really just has us raising the bar for ourselves and our production and what we do at our shows. We’re going to be pulling out all the stops and trying to meet and exceed expectations of the crowd. We’re really looking forward to making this concert unlike any one we’ve ever put on before. More than anything, these larger shows have us humbled and inspired to keep going and to just kind of blast through the expectations and make sure our fans are getting something new and fresh and unlike anything they’ve ever experienced before.
Live For Live Music: How did you come up with this year’s theme, “The Electric Kool-Aid Asheville Test”?
Ormont: The theme really gives us a bevy of opportunities to kind of explore. Our themes for Halloween and New Year’s typically dive well beyond our usual musical catalog. But I think this theme demands more than just new material and musical surprises because we’re exploring this theme beyond just the music. There will be surprises at every turn. It’s going to be a like a musical carpet ride— very psychedelic, 360-degree visual and audio experience, music and beyond. There’s no telling which direction we might go throughout the night. And beyond that, we’re also going to be bringing in extra elements to make it a much more larger-than-life experience. We’re trying to put on an immersive concert experience that surprises both through music and with what’s around you throughout your entire process of the night. We have Domefest alumni TAUK opening up the night who are absolutely phenomenal musicians and incredibly close friends. I wouldn’t be surprised if we tap their musical minds for some sections of the night to kind of elevate our jams even further. We [Domefest] just announced our phase 1 lineup two weeks ago. This year will be our 11th year curating our own festival. We’re super stoked about it.
Live For Live Music: Well I know The Flock is prepared for this immersive musical trip with you guys. What kind of elements are you bringing in?
Ormont: Well, once we decided on the theme, all of these ideas started flooding in and we’ve been having so much fun, literally laughing our asses off planning surprises for this event. When we announced the theme, all of these Merry Pranksters came out of the woodwork and wanted to get involved. We’ve been talking with original and new-wave Merry Pranksters, planning and working with them to make this show like a modern revival of the great American psychedelic experience that the theme is based on. It’s going to be a pretty authentic, yet modern take on this amazing era and beyond. It’s going to be unlike anything we’ve ever done as a band.
Live For Live Music: Wow, a totally new approach to the production of the band’s show. That’s gonna be one hell of a night. Do you remember what you guys did for New Year’s 10 years ago when we were going into 2010?
Ormont: I don’t think we did a New Year’s show. I think I was still seeing Phish and soaking in their creativity. And little did I know, I would use what I’ve learned from those experiences and the other New Year’s shows I’ve seen to try to up the ante and one-up everything I’ve seen before and try to create something fresh for our fans. But I think this might be our first turn of the decade, which even adds more chips to this pot. I mean, there’s just so much going on, and the fact that it’s in an arena is surreal unto itself.
To play our first notes of 2020 in a new decade in an arena in Asheville, one of the funkiest, out there towns in the country, is just going to be a total trip. The location of Asheville kind of helped us get to creating this theme because the energy there and the creativity that pours into the veins of the people who live there is palpable. This just felt like the perfect place to unleash this kind of immersive psychedelic experience. I know they’ll know what to do with that energy and they’ll be bringing their own creativity to the event.
Live For Live Music: Looking back now, what advice would you give yourself 10 years ago, when you were heading into 2010?
Ormont: Trust your gut and give it hell. Yeah, I mean, it’s crazy. Hindsight is 20/20, and it’s crazy to look back on, but I like to hope that everyone’s path leads them to where they need to be. It’s been an unbelievable ride to be in the position to play an arena on New Year’s after seeing some great bands do it prior to me. And I think it’s important to appreciate the moment and try to soak it in as it’s happening while also keeping your head down and trusting your gut and trying to improve every aspect of what you do, whether it’s in music or otherwise. And hopefully, the chips fall where they’re supposed to. But most importantly, you got to enjoy the ride.
Live For Live Music: That’s great life advice. Always appreciate how far you’ve come and trust the process. The band debuted a couple of new tracks while out on tour. How do you guys find time to write new material while constantly touring?
Ormont: The thing about being a musician is that the creative mind really never turns off. Sometimes you’ll be trying to go to sleep and you’ve got to spring out of bed and lay down a new groove idea or take out your phone and jot down some fresh lyrics to some new jam we had at practice. As much fun as we have on stage, we also take it really seriously and constantly work on our individual craft as well as practicing as a group. When you give it your all preparing and creating material, it allows your mind to be free once the show finally comes around. More than anything, it’s just fun for us to play new material. We play concerts year-round, sometimes hundreds of shows a year, so whenever we get a chance to play something fresh, it’s not just exciting for the crowd, but it also gives us an opportunity to explore new territory and dig into fresh jams and continually try to raise the bar for ourselves musically. We’re never going to stop writing music, and I can promise you that we have a bunch of new originals coming soon.
Live For Live Music: What would you say is your favorite newer track that Pigeons has recently debuted?
Ormont: You know, I typically avoid the favorites game, but I am rather fond of our latest original track, “Lost In Line”, that we just debuted at The Anthem. I was able to get the meat of the song together and show the band, and when you write a song and watch it develop, when you introduce it to the three other minds of the band, that’s just a really interesting, incredible experience. Alex makes it groove so much more and Ben adds his ridiculous funky bass lines on it, and Jeremy will often add another section to it that ties the whole thing together. This was the case in “Lost In Line” where I brought a song idea to the band. We “pigeon-fied” it, as I say. It’s almost like you’re covering your own song just to make it sound like the four of our minds and not just one mind. Jeremy added this really slick, danceable groove on the tail end of the song and once he did that, I heard a slick-sounding spoken word rap section to match the swagadelic vibe that Jeremy gave it, and Ben with his octave bass. I ended up writing two rap verses that we debuted. It’s a really cool perspective to watch the original seed blossom into the flower of a song.
Live For Live Music: We’re ready for some more “pigeon-fied” songs, that’s for sure! I hope The Flock is ready to pass this immersive psychedelic “Asheville” test.
Ormont: Yeah, well I like to think that every experience you’ve led or you’ve had will lead you to a passing grade at the Asheville Test. But as long as you trust your gut and give it hell, you’ll be fine. It’s going to be a f*cking wild night. It’s going to be really memorable and fun and like nothing that the band has put on before. Study up, boys and girls.
Tickets to Pigeons Playing Ping Pong’s 360-degree immersive psychedelic “Electric Kool-Aid Asheville Test” NYE celebration can be found here.